Many of the novels I read are not current bestsellers. I prefer reading books from decades ago. I'm not sure why. Is it because writers way back probably didn't rush off to take the latest masterclass on writing or do an MA in creative writing? Is it because they probably didn't buy books that promised you'd be a better writer if you followed this or that method? In other words, they were less formulaic? Is it because there used to be powerhouse editors like Maxwell Perkins (edited F.Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe) or Gordon Lish (edited Raymond Carver), who could spot a dangling participle within two seconds and had an incredible ability to sense what to cut to reveal the underlying, minimalist structure of a book? Is it because the book world is now driven by the importance of sales?
I don't know. What I do know is there are some authors and books that have had a profound influence on my writing over the years. I turn to them regularly, re-reading their novels and enjoying the story that unfolds. I'd love to know who the editors were behind these novels. If you know, drop a comment.
I've read Daphne du Maurier's books many times, and they are near the top of my list (particularly My Cousin Rachel (1951)). But these five books (and four authors) are my absolute favourites. I won't go off on a tangent and review them - you can hotfoot it to Google, Amazon or your local library. Suffice it to say, if I had to nominate the proverbial books to take to a desert island, these are the ones.
The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell. English literature at its most sublime. Flawless. Perfection. Published in the late 1950s. Durrell, an Indian-born English writer, was also a poet (I have an old copy of his Selected Poems that is practically falling apart because I've read it so many times). The rhythm and imagery of his poetry come through in his prose.
The Dark Labyrinth by Lawrence Durrell. Captivating, claustrophobic. An assortment of colourful cruise ship tourists gets trapped in a cave on Crete that is said to be the legendary labyrinth of the minotaur. Published in 1947, and I have a cherished early edition.
Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth. This novel was published in 1992 and shared the Booker Prize with Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient. It's about the Atlantic slave trade and is an exploration of power, greed, and brutal human behaviour. It's nothing short of a masterpiece. Unsworth's prose is so brilliant; you're on the rolling deck of the ship with the sailors; you're chained and crammed into the foul-smelling underdeck with other slaves. It had me in tears. I read it every other year and still have my copy from 1992.
The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. This is a book from 1931 that my mum introduced me to when I was in my late teens. Buck was her favourite author, and I love another book by her - All Under Heaven (1973). The Good Earth is about Chinese life in a village in the 1920s, particularly the position of women, and the sweeping changes the modern world ushers in. Buck lived in China from 1920 to 1933, and The Good Earth won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932.
Stoner by John Williams. Published in 1965 and 'discovered' in the early 2000s. It didn't sell all that well when it was first published. A flawless, deeply moving novel about William Stoner, who moves from his early years on a farm (in 1910) in the midwest of the United States to the life of a college professor. It's an unremarkable career that spans 40 years of university politics and rivalry with another academic. Stoner followed the life of a lonely man, but he was a hero.
Well, I can tell you one thing - I don't go for the happy-ever-after romances, that's for sure.
What five books would you take with you?